Discard your last memory of Keri Russell acting, whether that be from Felicity at the bitter end, or post haircut; in the lovely independent film Waitress; or in 2010’s Running Wilde, the terrible Fox comedy in which she played straight man to Will Arnett. Because in the opening scene of the new FX drama The Americans, she is be-wigged and giving a BJ, indicating that both she and her character, Elizabeth, an entrenched KGB spy posing as an American in the early 1980s, are no joke.
Matthew Rhys, who played one of the most fully fleshed-out gay characters in pop culture history as Kevin on Brothers and Sisters, is Philip, her husband and fellow spy. They have two children who were born and raised in the United States and have no idea who their parents are. I hesitate to give many more details of the plot. I screened the pilot at FX last week, and knew almost nothing about it, which really added to the show’s effect. Let’s leave it at this: With Ronald Reagan newly in the White House and the Cold War escalating to what we as viewers know will be its conclusion, Elizabeth’s and Philip’s lives are about to change. The show has its premiere on Jan. 30.
The Americans was created by Joe Weisberg, who used to work at the CIA in the early ‘90s and who has also written a spy novel, An Ordinary Spy. (Media nerds: Weisberg’s brother is Jacob, of Slate, and their mother, Lois, was the subject of the famous Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker story “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg,” about people who are “connectors.”) Weisberg’s pilot for The Americans is layered with global and personal politics. The show is great-looking and gray in that Three Days of the Condor way, and the period details — remember that the early ’80s still looked like the ’70s — feel right so far. Setting a chase scene to Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” verges on brilliant. And Weisberg has given Rhys in particular a lot to do — is Philip a killer spy, a sensitive soul, or an agent who’s begun to love where he lives? I look forward to finding out; some brief Urban Cowboy–style dancing indicates we have a lot to learn about him.
Culture is awash with spies these days, but The Americans makes you remember how different things were when the “threat” to the United States was from the Soviets: white people. Homeland has done a lot with the spectacle of a redheaded paleface like Brody engaged in Muslim prayer, but the idea of spies living as our neighbors is a throwback idea. As one who feels exhausted by post-9/11 representations of terrorism — Homeland’s meandering second season has been the final straw — it seems The Americans is coming just at the right time.